By John Austin
I have been a practicing Muslim for over 20 years. And, I am the Muslim who almost wasn’t. Every year, around Ramadan, I reflect on my experience establishing my deen.
The first years after I converted were the hardest. I had no direction and no guidance. I spent a lot of time at Islamic bookstores. I frequently came upon texts that posited some truly outlandish things, had substandard bindings and needed proper editing. This gave me no confidence in what I was learning.
It felt like I was wandering in a wilderness that was devoid of the spiritual and academic sustenance I needed. I relied on my own judgment, when it came to secondary sources, for my Islamic education. That period of my life was one of extreme religious isolation even though I had many friends. I had all of my friends from my days as a lapsed Christian. Unfortunately, my Muslim friends were divided along sectarian lines and degrees of religiosity.
Over the subsequent years, I struggled with my Muslim-ness. I recognized the advantage that people who were born or raised as Muslims had over converts. They were anchored to Islam by tradition and culture. Their childhoods were spent having an Islamic identity woven into them like an intimate friend. Islam and I were estranged roommates during the best of times. I frequently turned to my Qur’an for guidance, but I could never escape the suspicion that I was unable to properly contextualize it. It seemed more of a top-level blueprint and there was much about being a day-to-day Muslim I was ignorant of.
As we celebrate another Holy Month, I have selected some passages from the 21st Juz’ (29:46–33:30) that not only reflect some of my experiences, but also reminds us about our higher God-given calling.
[Adhere to it], turning in repentance to Him, and fear Him and establish prayer and do not be of those who associate others with Allah
[Or] of those who have divided their religion and become sects, every faction rejoicing in what it has. — 30:31–32
This passage from Surah al-Rum warns against sectarianism and assigning partners with Allah (swt). It isn’t just about forming sects within Islam. It’s about forming divisions. It makes me think about all of the disaffected people who have been relegated to isolation similar to my own. I ask myself when I see people radicalize or commit unspeakable acts: How much of this could have been prevented with some sincere fellowship? To a lesser degree, how much better could we make someone’s life with a little sincere engagement? I have committed to reach out more to others and attempt to form more meaningful relationships regardless of sect or religious affiliation.
And one of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colors; most surely there are signs in this for the learned. — 30:22
This passage from Surah al-Rum has always resonated with me (along with al-Hujurat 49:13), because it beautifully expresses the diversity of people and cultures throughout the world and the Ummah. Allah’s emphasis on the message of unity regardless of race or culture reminds us to celebrate our differences, not shun or fear them. People tend to form divisions or barriers based on socioeconomic status, culture or religion, and race. Having experienced this, I can say that it can be very isolating. When we break communities down into progressively smaller cliques, at some point the larger community simply ceases to exist.
The following two ayat from Surah Luqman also describe another aspect of developing a Muslim identity:
Those who keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate and they are certain of the hereafter. — 31:4
And whoever submits himself wholly to Allah and he is the doer of good (to others), he indeed has taken hold of the firmest thing upon which one can lay hold; and Allah’s is the end of affairs. — 31:22
Good works and inclusion go hand in hand. Getting involved has to go beyond casually clicking a donate button on a Facebook page. It has to go beyond even handing out food and clothes to the homeless. How many of the people that we claim to serve do we stop and have a conversation with?
In my efforts to give back during Ramadan, it occurs to me to look as much within the various Muslim communities for those in need. One does not have to be disenfranchised or materially dispossessed to be in need. We have this tendency to dehumanize people even as we try to serve them. Something simple, like looking someone in the eye or asking about them about their lives, can go a long way. We should do these things as a matter of course. Not to appear interested but to be interested.
As a convert, I may not have been tethered to Islam by culture or tradition, but neither am I encumbered by it. Sunni, Shia, Nation of Islam, Ismaili. These are just words; words that tell me nothing about the piety and character of the individual. I chose to cling to my religion, my belief in the Oneness of Allah (swt), in those early days. It helped me make the distinction between Islam and Muslims. And it provided a template for the type of Muslim I wanted to be.
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John Austin is the owner of a small digital agency in Washington, DC, that creates interactive training and experiences in virtual reality and augmented reality and makes films.
He also writes essays and fiction and is a contributing author to the anthology Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy.